Richard Smith: Communicating about climate change—think audience and messenger

Climate Outreach, leaders in communicating about climate change, do not aim to proselytise, sell, or persuade, but rather fulfil people’s “right to know.” Just as people have a right to know what is wrong with them and what doctors propose as treatment, people have a right to know about what is happening to the planet. What they do with that information is their business, but, said George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach, when talking to the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, the aim of good communicating is to build a social mandate to make the changes necessary to counter climate change. In democracies it’s hard for politicians to act without such a mandate.

The idea of a right to know about climate change is far from revolutionary. It is written into both the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The first recommendation of the UK Assembly on Climate Change, a group of people selected to reflect the population, reads: “There is a need for information and education for everyone—individuals, businesses, government and others—about climate change and the steps needed to tackle it. It is essential for buy-in to the changes that are needed.”

People not knowing about climate change—or being positively misinformed—leads people to act in ways that are against their long-term interests. Marshall cited the example of the Australian government being brought down by campaigns against a carbon tax.

Despite the international commitments, governments have been poor at communicating about climate change. Perhaps the subject has been low on the political agenda, perhaps they have been nervous about frightening people, or perhaps they think people “know” about the dangers of climate change. It’s true that most people in Britain know that climate change is harmful, but they are much less knowledgeable about the gravity and urgency of the problem, sources of the change, the range of impacts, what needs to be done, and what they can do.

Most governments have recognised the importance of communicating about the covid-19 pandemic, and a social mandate was built for rapid change that seemed almost impossible. The same needs to happen with climate change.

Just as understanding of climate change is underpinned by science so communicating about issues as complex as climate change is underpinned by the science of communication. Climate Outreach bases its work and recommendations on science. Communicating the facts, figures, and science of climate change is not the best way to communicate about climate change to most people. Many are baffled by the complexity, especially when the “facts” are disputed, as is often the case in science. Climate deniers succeeded for many years in making many people believe that climate wasn’t happening by sowing doubt.

Successful communication means finding a narrative that is understood, believed, and trusted. The narrative must fit with the identity and values of the people at whom the narrative is aimed. It must validate who the people are and what they want to be. Most importantly the narrative must fit with the group to whom people belong.

The importance of “what people like me think and do” is seen dramatically in the US where climate change is highly politicised. It is (or has been) difficult to be a Republican voter and support strong action on climate change. I remember hearing a radio broadcast where a lifelong Republican described being rejected by his colleagues after his son convinced him of the importance of acting on climate change.

Messages must be designed to fit with the values and world view of those at whom they are aimed. Messages to people of faith might use messages from their scriptures, whereas very different messages will be needed for, for example, venture capitalists.

The message is important, but who delivers the message is probably more important. Messengers must be trusted and respected. An analysis of net-trust in different groups shows nurses and doctors to be the most trusted and journalists, economists, business people, and politicians as the least trusted; but, pointed out Marshall, it is the least trusted people who produce most of the messages on climate change.

Studies of what determines beliefs about climate change show that political allegiance and ideology are by far the most important. Gender has little influence, while education and age have more. People concerned about climate change are almost all politically on the left, and the movement to reduce the impact of climate change is, said Marshall, “fuelled by disdain for conservatives.” Disdain is a not for communication.

Climate change, he continued, must not be seen as simply an environmental issue. “We must break out of the environmental box.” It’s better to emphasise issues like health, security, the economy, food, community, property, family, heritage, landscape, jobs, fairness, and independence.

As a contribution to improving communication on climate change, Climate Outreach has conducted an analysis of views on climate change among 10,400 people in Britain. The analysis divides people into seven segments, including “progressive activist,” “backbone conservative,” and “disengaged battler.” The aim is to shape messages to fit with the particular segments, but analysis of the views on the need for change because of covid-19 showed that more than three-quarters of every group want change.

The facts that health professionals are trusted, health is a good topic for engaging people on climate change, and there is a large appetite for change all present a great opportunity for health professionals. We need to make our voices more prominent in the debate over climate change.

But more work is needed on what the messages should be. Marshall suggested emphasising the need for caring, the importance of clean air, the effects of floods, and mental health issues. He also advocated more original thinking—for example, underlining the harm to health from poorly ventilated, damp housing, and in this way joining the drive to renovate homes in Britain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve health. He also said that we should prepare ourselves for when health and climate change rise high on the agenda—as will happen when we next get a major heat wave.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interests: none declared.